The Lord’s Supper is for Sinners

There is something special about a good meal. It’s not just eating, it’s enjoying time around a table with others and with quality food. A meal can be a special blessing, cementing cherished memories in our mind. But if this is true of normal earthly meals, how much more true is it that the Lord’s Supper is a meal of profound blessing. In particular the Lord’s Supper is a special means of grace for those struggling with sin.

The Lord’s Supper gets its name from the meal that our Lord Jesus instituted with his disciples on the night before his betrayal. In all reality Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples when he reinterpreted it to point not backwards to God’s redemption through the Exodus, but forward to God’s redemption through the cross of Christ. The Bible uses a number of different terms to speak of this meal:
  • Breaking of bread (Acts. 2:42; 1 Cor. 10:16)
  • Holy Communion (1 Cor. 10:16)
  • The Table of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:21)
  • The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20)
  • Eucharist (11:24)

The references all have a unique twist on the same idea, but at the heart of each is the remembrance and celebration of what Jesus accomplished at the cross. So, the Lord’s Table is often referred to as a symbol and that is true. But the event itself is a means of grace to struggling sinners. It does more than simply point backwards, it mediates a special work of grace in the lives of believers who partake of it.

We know it is more than just a meal and symbol because Paul warns us about partaking in an “unworthy manner.” There is judgment that can be incurred from partaking inappropriately. So, Paul writes to the Corinthians:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor. 11:27-30)

Drinking and eating in an “unworthy manner” results in weakness, illness, and even for some death. That is a serious issue and indicates something more than just remembrance is happening in partaking of the meal. Writing at Desiring God, David Matthis speaks of the power of the Lord’s Supper, saying:

Great things are at stake when the church gathers at the Table of her Lord. Blessing and judgment are in the balance. There is no neutral engagement. Our gospel is “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). So also the “visible sermon” of the Supper leads from life to life, or death to death. As with gospel preaching, the Table will not leave us unaffected, but either closer to our Savior, or more callous to him. (“Grow in Grace at the Table”)

Such a warning is an indicator of the power of the Lord’s Supper, but it can also serve to unnerve us. It can tempt us, perhaps, to even dread, fear, and avoid the Lord’s Supper.

Alan Noble asks the questions that many of us have thought: Are you clean enough to take communion this month? Have you truly confessed your sins? (“Communion”). It’s an important question since, after all, we definitely do not want to partake in an “unworthy” manner. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that we can never satisfactorily answer it. How do you know if you’ve truly confessed all your sins? How can you truly confess all your sins? How can you ever be “pure” enough to partake of this meal of communion? The answer, as Noble states, is simply that you can’t be clean enough. He writes:

Did you get everything? Did you identify and confess all your sins? No! You didn’t! You can’t remember all the ways you have sinned this week.

That ache in my gut telling me that there was one more sin I needed to confess, or the obsessive fear that some past action might have been a sin—these weren’t hindrances to me rightly receiving the Lord’s Supper, they are part of the economy of receiving Grace.

We come to the table broken because that’s what the Lord’s Table is all about. As a pointer to the gospel it is a reminder that I cannot make myself pure enough. I cannot repent enough, nor deal with all my sin apart from Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is for sinners.

This is not meant to downplay the significance and weight of Paul’s words. We can partake in an unworthy manner. We can partake in an unworthy manner by refusing to deal with sin that God has revealed to us. That is, in fact, the exact contextual point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians. The issue at hand is division within the body (v. 18). Failing to “discern the body” is a reference to the church and our failure to be united. By refusing to deal with the sin of division the Corinthians were receiving judgment through the Lord’s Supper. Likewise, when we are living in open, unrepentant, sin and refuse to address it and partake of the Lord’s Supper, then we are partaking in an unworthy manner.

We are also partaking in an unworthy manner when we take it full of pride, believing we have no sin. When we believe that we truly are worthy of the Lord’s Supper, we truly are clean and pure and without fault, then we are missing the whole point of the Eucharist. If the Lord’s Table reenacts the Lord’s Cross, then it serves as an invitation for the “sick” not those who are healthy (Mark 2:17). When we partake full of self-confidence we partake in an unworthy manner.

The Lord’s Supper is for sinners. It’s for those who know they are sinners, confess their sins, and need the grace of God to keep fighting for purity. The Lord’s Table is an invitation to partake of that grace. As Alan Noble concludes:

taking the Bread and the Wine is an enacting of the physical and spiritual reality that my righteousness is not my own, that Christ’s grace is not dependent upon my holiness. The Table forced me to acknowledge my inability to be pure on my own and Christ’s gratuitous love for me despite my sin.

If you’re not struggling with sin – that is you are just indulging in and enjoy it – then the Lord’s Supper is not for you. But if you are a struggling, attempting to resist sin, fighting against impurity, even though you fail, then this Lord’s table is for you! The Lord’s Supper is for sinners; so, come and eat.

1 Comment

  1. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. – 2 Corinthians 7:11

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